The sound hit both of our ears as he stepped on it, but he reacted to it first. He probably felt it under his boot before recognition dawned on either of us. We instinctively froze in the heat, sweat dripping, the smell hanging there and the mosquitoes flying around, daring us to move a muscle to swat them. He let me take his rifle and gently lean it against a tree trunk.
“Stay perfectly still, Private,” I said lamely, like he would do anything else.
“It’s bad, isn’t it, Sarge?” He didn’t even move his lips when he asked me, didn’t even blink.
“I’ve seen worse,” I lied.
It sat there plain as day, not even hidden all that well in the leaves and pine needles. I should’ve spotted it a mile away, should’ve warned him. Privates lack focus. Sergeants have to take care of them like they’re little kids. Where had my focus been?
“OK. Here’s what we’re gonna do.” I looked around like the answer was just going to spring out of the ground and fall into my lap. “I’m gonna unlace that boot. Then I’m gonna put pressure on it to hold it in place, so we don’t make even more of a mess. You’re gonna lean on my shoulder and gradually pull your foot out of the boot.” I looked him in the eye to see if he was tracking. “Tell me what I just said. We’ve got to work together on this.”
“Sarge, you’re gonna unlace my boot. Then you’re gonna hold it down while I slip my foot out of it.” He swallowed with an effort to move his Adam’s apple very slowly.
“And you’re gonna put your hand on my shoulder to lean on me while you pull your foot out, right?” I bit down on my frustration, blaming his fear for forgetting part of it.
I eased into position and knelt down near his boot, taking care not to get too close. No sense both of us ending up in the mess. I shook my head at the situation and realized I was making him more uncomfortable. All I needed was for him to start shaking and lose his balance or something. He might even fall on it. I took his left hand and eased it onto my shoulder, and he leaned into me like he was hugging his mommy.
Gently I tugged on the knot and untied the laces. I wadded them into one hand to keep them from dangling down and complicating things. I put that hand on the tongue of the boot and clamped the other hand around the heel.
“Slowly,” I said. He just nodded and grimaced as he pulled his foot free.
I looked down at the boot. It was practically new, and with a little care it might survive this incident with all involved parties a little wiser for the experience.
I picked up the boot and ran the sole through a patch of grass a few times. It helped a little bit. I place it carefully to the side of my leg where he could reach it.
“Ok, put your foot back in there.” He did, and I tucked the laces down the side. “Let’s find a good stick, and you can start cleaning the poop out of the tread.”
“Oh, I thought you were going to clean it.” He picked up the plastic dart gun from where it leaned against the tree and looked at me like I’d suggested he go to school without pants.
“You’re a big kid now. It’s time for you to deal with consequences. You’ll learn to be more careful where you step.” He gave up, knowing I wasn’t going to change my mind. We found a good stick and set off for the porch steps.
“Just sit right there and dig it out with the stick.” I tried not to smile at the memory of doing the same at his age. “Wipe it on the grass close to the porch where nobody’s going to walk.”
I opened the door and encountered my wife on the threshold. She looked at our son and frowned. “Stepped on a landmine.” She cocked an eyebrow and wrinkled her nose.
“I don’t know how we both missed it, but he’s going to clean it himself. I’m proud of him for cleaning up his own mess.” I started to step inside, but she hadn’t moved.
Her right hand held out the plastic bag. I said nothing, just took it and turned around to go collect my prize.